Opinions Page Editor

Mike Dunbar: One hero's story

mdunbar@modbee.comMay 25, 2014 

The tank was on fire. Out in front of the others, it had been hit by an armor-piercing shell during the fierce fighting on Iwo Jima. The men inside scrambled to get out, knowing they would be running into a hail of bullets. But it was either that or die in the tank.

So they clawed through the smoke, through the flames and through the bullets and ran to cover.

Someone asked, “Is everybody here? Is everybody out of the tank?”

That’s the moment Esiquiel “Marty” Martinez realized the gunner wasn’t there. He was hard to miss, a big guy, 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, name of James Haddix. They’d only met earlier that day. But now Haddix was back in that smoking Sherman, 100 yards from anyone who could help him.

The tank commander, Lt. Hank Bellmon, knew going back was suicide. Four live Marines for one dead Marine? The math was easy. “Anybody in that tank is dead,” he said, and ordered his men to fall back.

Perhaps Marty Martinez didn’t hear the order. “Haddix is still there,” he shouted, and then he was gone.

Martinez was not a small guy himself, about 6 feet and 185. But the bullets somehow missed him as he ran back to that burning metal heap. They kept missing as he climbed to the top of the Sherman, then dove through the hatch. There was Haddix. Still alive but his leg shredded. The Japanese kept on shooting, piercing the Sherman’s metal skin. It’s hard to miss a tank.

Somehow, Marty freed Haddix from a certain tomb. First he dragged him out of the tank, then down to the ground, then hauled him the length of a football field to safety – all while under continuous enemy fire.

Maybe that’s just what Marines do – face almost certain death on the off chance another Marine might still be alive. Might still need saving. Might not want to die alone.

And maybe this is why we need a special day to honor fallen heroes, those common men and women who too often are called on to do the uncommon, to save our nation. Many have given their last full measure … or offered it all for just one wounded soldier.

The Marines gave Esiquiel Martinez the Silver Star for disobeying that order. James Haddix got one, too. He was immediately evacuated to a hospital ship, where they removed what was left of his leg, then sent him home to Nebraska. He would marry, raise six kids, lead an exemplary life. The tank commander who had ordered his troops back, Hank Bellmon, would always remain close. He eventually became governor of Oklahoma, then U.S. Sen. Bellmon.

Marty eventually went home, too – back to California, where he married Josie and a few years later settled in Modesto. A quiet life. Four kids: three boys and a girl. A steady job for 20 years in Escalon. He never talked much about the war.

But, said his son Gilbert, “When that old John Wayne movie, ‘Iwo Jima,’ would come on TV, my dad would sit there and cry; I never knew why.”

In Nebraska, Haddix didn’t talk much about the war, either – not even to his family.

“I’d rather go ask my dad for $100 than ask him about the war,” said Don Haddix. But when James did talk about the war, he always recalled “ ‘The guy who pulled me out of that tank and saved my life.’ He never forgot Marty,” said Don. But they didn’t keep in touch.

Decades later, James Haddix asked Don to help him find Martinez – which he pronounced “Martin-ezz.” Don was living in California, so maybe James thought it would be easy. It wasn’t. Don contacted others from the unit and the Marine Corps, but no luck. He did find Martinez’s name on a list of Silver Star winners, but didn’t know why it was there. Later, with the Internet, it got easier. But “it was still like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

James Haddix died in 2006, never learning what had happened to the man who saved his life. But Don Haddix didn’t give up. “I said, I’ve got to see this through. If he’s not alive, I’ve got to track his kids down and thank them.”

Finally, a former Marine traced Martinez to Modesto. Around the same time, Haddix realized that Martinez’s Silver Star had been awarded for saving his father’s life.

It was too late to thank Esiquiel. The bullets of Iwo Jima spared him, but cancer didn’t. He died in 1969 and is buried in St. Stanislaus cemetery. His obituary was simple, saying he was a veteran of World War II, never mentioning the Silver Star.

Don found Mike Martinez in 2011; they talked by phone and cried together, recalling two men who were heroes and fathers.

But Don wanted others to know the story, too. He figured one day he would share it with Esiquiel’s other Modesto son, Gilbert, and maybe even write a letter to the local newspaper. Last year, Don had a heart attack. Once that happens, he said, “You don’t keep waiting. If you’ve got things you need to say, you say them.” So he emailed The Modesto Bee with Esiquiel Martinez’s story.

“The purpose is to acknowledge (their) father. What he did was really above and beyond the call of duty. He was obviously a person of great character.

“Iwo Jima was very much a hellhole. … He didn’t get a command, no one asked for volunteers; he just did it. He made a quick decision to hurl himself toward a burning tank, not knowing what he would find when he got there. He went back into that tank and pulled my dad out of there.”

If he were still alive, we would honor Martinez on Veterans Day. Instead, we honor the memory of Esiquiel Martinez and all those like him on this special day – Memorial Day. We recognize their service and their sacrifice.

Bee Opinions Page Editor Mike Dunbar can be reached at mdunbar@modbee.com or (209) 578-2325.

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